The intern is everywhere, slowly but surely, infiltrating every office on the planet. But while the internship is now ubiquitous, having become the standard first rung on most career ladders and the most frequent stepping stone between education and a career, it remains a largely unexamined and unregulated sector. Somewhere between an apprenticeship and a temp job, the internship resists easy definition and is understood more in terms of social cachet than actual responsibilities. Having had his fair share of directionless and underpaid internships between various degrees at Stanford and Cambridge, Ross Perlin, a researcher in linguistics, decided that the phenomenon deserved closer scrutiny. The result is Intern Nation, an exposé of the murky world of the internship.
When the debate over internships flared up earlier this year the focus was on their role in exacerbating social inequality. As Perlin put it in an article at the time, ‘internships are the face of privilege, restricting opportunities to those able to work for nothing or for a pittance’. The ‘cash for internships’ scandal (when it emerged that internships at City firms were being auctioned off at a Conservative Party fundraising event) was, according to Perlin, indicative of a structural inequality at the heart of the internship system. While Perlin does dedicate a chapter of the book to examining inequality (arguing that the more ‘glamorous’ sectors of film, television and journalism are actually more guilty in this regard than City firms), Intern Nation takes a broader approach to the subject.
One of Perlin’s main arguments is that the internship phenomenon has become a vehicle for an increasing interpenetration between the worlds of work and education. This is particularly pronounced in the US, where universities often run internship programmes hand-in-hand with businesses in which students can work for firms in return for academic credit. So far, UK universities have been more reluctant to open their doors to the market in this way (some Oxford colleges, for instance, forbid students from taking internships during holiday periods). But, with the radical overhaul in university funding, this is set to change. The problem with this encroachment of the business world into education, argues Perlin, is that it devalues both sides: replacing structured learning with nebulous ‘on the job experience’ and, in the case of the more unstructured internships, giving young people bad first impressions of the world of work.
Perlin is at his best when he attempts to situate the internship phenomenon within what he refers to as the ‘New Economy’. He argues that internships are part of a shift away from the company man to an entrepreneurial philosophy of ‘I am the CEO of me’. The benefit of most internships has little to do with learning about an industry or a career. Instead, internships are all about personal ‘branding’. Graduates gather internships as so many empty lines on a CV, evidence not so much of ability as connections and perseverance. In one of his most interesting arguments, Perlin links the increasing willingness to work for free to the ethos springing up around the internet, according to which businesses are willing to give their main commodity away for free and gain their financial rewards through subsidiary channels. In the internship system financial rewards are similarly deferred as graduates work for free in return for exposure, contacts, and references that are touted as the prerequisites to making money.
Though Intern Nation does focus fairly heavily on the situation in the US (the chapter on the exploitation of legal loopholes will be of little interest to the British reader, for instance), it is Perlin’s attempt to understand internships as a symptom of wider trends in the economy that makes the book such a fascinating read.